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Agent Provocateur

February 2, 2011

16173.jpgClybourne Park, Bruce Norris' drama about race, community, urban development and the language we use to define - or avoid having to define - all three of these concepts is having its west coast premiere at the American Conservatory Theater right now.

The best thing about Jonathan Moscone's pretty fluid and well-acted production is the reaction from the audience.

To elicit any kind of reaction from an ACT audience is a feat in itself. It's not unusual to see patrons snoring their way through the company's frequently dull shows.

But Norris' drama is geared precisely towards pushing the buttons of the politically-correct, middle-class, white theatre-going audience, and boy do they take the bait.

Every time a character in the play, which charts the development of an urban neighborhood over a span of about 60 years, said anything even slightly racist during last night's performance -- or that could be interpreted as such -- people in the audience let out shocked whoops or sarcastic cackles.

It was great to see an audience -- especially this particular audience -- reacting so viscerally to a stage production.

On the other hand, it's easy for a playwright to get this kind of feedback from a crowd. Racism is such a hot-button topic and people are so very politically-correct in the Bay Area, that a playwright hardly has to work to raise shackles. Danny Hoch achieved similar results with his show about urban planning and race (Taking Over) at Berkeley Rep several years ago, for instance.

I'd like to see a playwright achieve the same level of provocation with a subject that isn't race-related.

In any case, the show is worth seeing. It runs through February 20.

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